The State of our Union

Barack Obama’s world view leads me to believe that he would have made a great social studies teacher. “There’s the world as it is,” Obama explained, “and then there’s the world as it should be.” As a teacher of history and government, I must directly deal with this dichotomy, for I am tasked with presenting this world as it is to my students—usually in a sobering light—while at the same time inspiring the notion of a world as it should be.

What is the world as it is? To be blunt, the world as it is—the state of our union—is not strong. The world as it is currently is in the midst of a financial crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in nearly three decades. Gas prices are high, incomes are low, and American jobs are now shipped overseas. The world as it is has high unemployment, a weak dollar, and average Americans fretting over their mortgages and home payments. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently went under in the world as it is, and Lehman Brothers seems to be next in line. But somehow the memo hasn’t reached the American consumer, who continues to spiral further and further into debt. If there’s one thing that’s truly American, it’s the notion of spend now, worry later.

The world as it is has 80% of the nation believing that America is currently heading in the wrong direction. Eight years ago, our fearless leader took office with promise to restore the integrity lost in the White House. Since then, our nation has entered a war without definition, purpose, or exit in Iraq. We have chased a phantom in the mountains of Afghanistan. And through it all, our lives have changed. We no longer live for the American dream, as we once did. We now live in a constant state of fear. We fear the unknown, the ghosts who lurk in airport terminals, side streets downtown, and in foreign lands with unpronounceable names.

But the world as it is has demonstrated that not all threats are covert. We now face an overtly nuclear North Korea and a soon-to-be nuclear Iran. We have an Iraq still in shambles. There is still genocide in Darfur, although the United Nations won’t label it that. Call it ethnic cleansing, mass-murder, or maybe regional strife on a good day, but certainly not genocide.

The world as it is had Russians storming into Georgia and a cyclone obliterating Myanmar. Robert Mugabe “won” another “election” in Zimbabwe, a true litmus test of “democracy” finally arriving in Southern Africa. Speaking of Africa, thousands will contract AIDS this year and thousands more will die of starvation and malnutrition. But most Americans won’t hear about it, and those who do still won’t care.

Appropriately, the world as it is features the most important election in American history. In a closely contested campaign, both candidates talk about shaking up Washington, spitting campaign rhetoric aimed at shaking up the electorate. Both senators claim they are the change candidates that this nation needs. And through it all, I’m frankly annoyed at how many times the word “change” has been peppered into every campaign statement. Listen, repeat a word enough times and it eventually loses its meaning, reduced to its bare, phonetic shell. And without any sort of substance, the change both candidates promise will become—simply put—nothing more than a sound byte in the most literal sense.

Change with substance would reflect the world as it should be. The world as it should be would have a Gulf Coast community rebuilt and prospering. The world as it should be would contain a coherent and functioning educational system for all American children. Nations wouldn’t eagerly march to war, men and women would earn equal wages for equal work, and all people would have access to the health care. The world as it should be is not meant to be perfect, but rather idealistic. As Michelle Obama explained, we should strive for, “a simple belief that the world as it is just won’t do; that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be.”

Michelle Obama is right, but there’s something to be said about our stark reality. And every day while I ride the 6 Train to work, motivated by my obligation to fight for the world as it should be, I am reminded of the overwhelming alternative. Jonathan Kozel’s book Amazing Grace describes this very commute, which takes me from the 7th richest Congressional district to the poorest in the nation, a small jump that takes but a few minutes from Eastern Manhattan to Brook Avenue. And amidst the projects, the rundown factories, and half-opened bodegas I pass, I realize—with a certain amount of glum—how truly far away we are from the world as it should be.

But what can I do? I’m not the President or the Speaker of the House. The major problems of the world as it is revolve around broken policy, human vulnerability, and shallowness. Considering the circumstances, I am unfortunately not currently empowered to make the macro changes we so desperately need. But I am a social studies teacher, and my contribution is the knowledge and inspirational fuel for a future in need. What I can do is tell my students that this world is worth saving despite its many flaws. “There’s the world as it is, and there’s the world as it should be,” I will explain, panning the quote as my own when due recognition should probably be given to social studies Obama. My sincere hope is that they will focus on the latter half of the statement, but when the former is so disheartening, the state of our union so very demoralizing, I realize that it’s sometimes hard to concentrate.

–Eugene Lee



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